"What does a weasel look like?" asks an angelic little pre-teen. "How do I tie a bow-tie again?" begs a harassed man in a tuxedo. "Remind me to call Chris when I get home," gasps a jogger. Their phone, of course, has all the answers. This is the first TV advert for Apple’s iPhone 4S and its flagship new feature: Siri, released in 2011.
Of course, the tech wasn’t perfect. (One user, Frank Fazio, even filed a complaint against Apple, claiming that Siri didn’t perform as advertised.) But seven years on, voice search is becoming second nature. 20 per cent of mobile queries are already made by voice. In 2016, ComScore predicted that by 2020, 50 per cent of all searches will be by voice, though Gartner predicts that figure will be lower: 30 per cent of searches will be screenless by 2020.
"We are now searching more than we ever have before," says David Gerrard, head of SEO at e-commerce digital marketing agency Visualsoft. "If we need something, we search for it, no matter where we are or what we’re doing. It’s the logical progression of convenience with the devices that we use."
But while voice search may be a leap forward for consumer convenience, it’s also a big unknown for businesses - particularly smaller ones. What will a screen-free, voice-driven future mean for them?
How voice search works
While voice recognition tech has drastically improved, it still presents results from conventional online searches. The big difference is the way the results are presented to the searcher – and the device you’re searching through.
"Amazon Alexa uses Bing to get its results and Google Home obviously uses Google," explains Ema Kusaite, head of SEO at search specialists Found.co.uk. "With each device, you can view the top three to four results for your query. Voice Search only reads one result out loud. So if a company or service is not top of their keyword ranking, chances are they won’t be picked. It’s a ‘winner takes it all’ scenario: if a company’s page is not picked or can’t be read by the voice assistant, then they’re invisible on Voice Search."
Make it conversational
So how can you improve your chances of being that winner? SMEs could have an advantage, says Richard Hartley, head of Emerging Technology & Innovation Lab at global design studio Brilliant Basics. He points out that search has adapted to ‘conversation-style’ queries that take into account the intent and context of the question, rather than just the words themselves.
"Information that is designed with understanding of intent and has a singular clear meaning or context will work well across any conversation interface, voice activated or not," he says. "This bias is seen in the results from voice search interfaces like Alexa, Siri and Google Voice Search. They favour material from social media, specifically when looking for rich media like video or images. This results in a more conversational style, which reflects those same social channels and often has a much clearer human context versus traditional web page content.
SMEs and small businesses, he says, can use this bias, and use it quickly. They’re not chained to large legacy or proprietary web content management systems, or subject to complex corporate tone of voice that can make them seem less human. And they can rapidly respond to new content requirements, such as simple copywriting improvements, to take advantage over the monolithic corporate sites.
Geographical advantage could also be key for small businesses with a local presence. Mobile voice-related searches are three times more likely to be local-based than text, points out Ema.
"Location is an even bigger factor than ever before," she says. "22 per cent of all mobile voice searches are for local information. So get your Google My Business search sorted to start building visibility in Google Maps and Google Search in your local community."
If you have a bricks-and-mortar presence as well as a web presence, voice searches could also be good for you, says Joshua Panter, strategist at digital marketing agency Atom42 - think searches like 'kids clothes store near me'.
"In this instance, the losers will be the stores that haven’t engaged in any kind of optimisation for local SEO and have made no attempts at ensuring their online presence is a positive one," he says. "The winners will be sites that have engaged in both broader and local SEO and are actively engaging with users, providing good service and as a result earning good reviews and brand presence."
Although asking Siri for that kids’ clothes shop might seem like a more direct way of finding it, voice search has actually introduced a third element into the relationship between business and consumer, says Benedikt von Thungen, CEO of voice recognition technology company Speechmatics: the digital assistants themselves.
"We're used to the consumer relationship being on a product level but the emphasis is now rapidly moving towards an assistant level, with consumers building a relationship with Alexa, Siri, Cortana or Bixby instead," he points out. "The risk for both big and small companies is that the direct relationship with consumers is lost or reduced. Businesses will lose the opportunity to build a marketing relationship with their consumer, and the same applies to up-selling and cross-selling."
Companies will have to work harder to build their brands. "Focus will shift from SEO and web marketing towards seamless integration for the customer, if voice is part of the product," he says. "The winners here will be companies that can build novel communication channels with their customers that will allow them to get very rapid access to products, as well as the companies that integrate voice into their products and websites.
"Those that manage to optimise supply chains to be able to compete on price, as well as those that offer and integrate voice tech that is independent from large corporates, will also make a seamless transition and thrive in our screenless future."
The walled garden
So small retailers face a double threat from Amazon: that loss of a direct relationship to digital assistant Alexa, and the ‘walled garden’ where Alexa takes them.
"You can order pretty much any Prime and Amazon fulfilled product on there, with Amazon selecting their ‘choice’ products for each search first, with the option to choose others too," says Joshua.
"Small online retailers can add their products to Amazon and try to become the ‘choice’ product but this isn’t always easy, with the need for strong sales performance and optimisation to get you in the coveted positions for product searches."
If a retailer doesn’t have an Amazon presence, they’re essentially out of the running, says David. "Amazon are far and away the dominant force in voice commerce at present, accounting for 90 per cent of transactions in this area. For retailers who compete with Amazon, the task is becoming more difficult by the minute. Subscription models such as Prime coupled with the bias of an Amazon-based device signify one-way traffic in some areas."
Understanding the tech available to help will be key for small businesses, says Ema. She points to the Alexa Skill store: voice apps that tell you everything from your daily horoscope to facts about black history. "Brands are starting to get on this market, as this is a great way to improve brand awareness," she says. Don’t rely on these, though: although there are more than 7,000 skills currently available, less than a third have user ratings.
So while voice tech might seem futuristic, the main lesson around it is nothing new: be prepared.
"The very concept of voice search is less about providing a list of potential answers and more about providing the best single answer," says David. "By virtue of this, competing could be seen as difficult but the general equation is simple. Identifying and utilising the knowledge that your business can provide – and formatting and deploying it effectively – is the cornerstone of succeeding."
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